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Our Lady of Guadalupe: enduring sign of Gods compassion
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Last Wednesday, the Feast of Juan Diego, I was leaving the church after noon mass when a tall young woman approached.   She appeared, like me, to be of western European descent.  At her side was a young Hispanic woman.   The taller one asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Of course I don’t mind - yet!” I joked.  “What’s your question?”

“Why do those people leave candles burning in front of that statue?”  She politely lifted her nose in the direction of our outdoor image of Our Lady.

“Oh, you mean in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s little shrine?”

“Yes,” our Baptist friend replied, glancing briefly at her formerly Catholic friend and back.  “I was just wondering why they light those candles.”

“Now that’s a really great question.”  I mused, scratching my head.  From there I explained the historic practice, common in religions throughout the world, of burning candles as a sign of devotion, of the divine light which we need in our journey through the darkness, of our own call to be light for the world, and of our symbolic presence in that place maintaining the vigil of constant prayer.  They also symbolize the intercession of the saints.

From there on, our conversation was entirely predictable.  Though very cordial, our Protestant sister kept pulling out the questions we always hear, and I kept swamping her with scriptural quotations upon which Catholic teaching and dogmas are founded.  A very devout woman at my side also explained our position, but in a gentler, more feminine way.  In the end, our sisters in Christ went on their way.  I wondered what they will report back to their Bible study group.  I hope they’ll remember those scriptures.

That evening, I prayed in Mass for all those Christians who love Jesus but who are so afraid to talk to his Mother.  After all, he’s sent her to us again and again throughout history, precisely to call us to a deeper relationship.

I couldn’t help remember the 35-year-old father whose lifeless body I had blessed with incense just two hours before the Baptist popped her question.

I reflected on the five hours after our conversation. They were filled with unplanned encounters.   A man sleepless due to constant nightmares, a family whose 52-year-old father had just died, a young man needed to sell home-baked bread to make ends meet, another young man starving for a meal but seemingly under the influence, and a dozen others.  They’d all come to St. Mary’s Church in downtown Stockton, hoping for compassion.

I’d discarded all my administrative duties and my afternoon’s agenda to attend, one by one, to these people.  It all began with the two ladies outside.

But wasn’t that exactly what the Guadalupe apparitions were all about?

She appeared in 1531 to a humble Indian named Juan Diego. Today, December 12th, marks the anniversary of her final message to the 57-year-old widower who would soon bear her image on his cactus-fiber “tilma”.

On the first day she appeared, celebrated last Wednesday, the Virgin said:

“Know and understand well, you the most humble of my sons, that I am the ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God for whom we live, of the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and the earth.  I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, because I am your merciful mother, to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all the rest who love me, invoke and confide in me; I will listen there to their lamentations, and remedy all their miseries, afflictions and sorrows…”  She then sent her messenger to the Bishop of Mexico City, with a very special request.

On the fourth day, as Juan Diego skirted her hill in order to find a priest for his dying uncle, she stopped him and said, “Hear me and understand well, my son the least, that nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who am your Mother?  Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health?  Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish?  Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything…”

Go online and you’ll discover why Our Lady of Guadalupe, far from dying out as a pagan cult or the misguided devotion of misinformed Catholics, is actually growing in popularity around the world.  The phenomenon of her mysterious image is only a reflection of the healings and conversions which have been attributed to her intercession over nearly five centuries.

My own journey to the Catholic faith and to the priesthood always included this beautiful woman.  From the moment I met her when working in 1971 with Mexican migrant farm workers, to the day I was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Lathrop, to the seven times I’ve been at her shrine in Mexico City, to more personal experiences I’ve been blessed to have, this colorful manifestation of Mary has always touched my heart.

Yes, today is her feast.  If you want a convenient way to experience the joy and color of this day, I invite you to a bilingual celebration at 9 a.m. in Stockton, at St. Mary’s Church (203 E. Washington Street, 95202).  We’ll begin with traditional indigenous dances, celebrate mass with Mariachis, and then share snacks and more dances in the gym.  Or if you can’t make it to one of our Catholic churches, try going online and looking up “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  Do it with an open mind and heart, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.  May the Mother of Jesus be your mother, too.